Stuart O’Grady confirms his good form with a typically combative stage win, as Thomas Voeckler takes
It’s been a strange season for Stuart O’Grady and his Cofidis team-mates. The French team’s travails have been widely recorded, and it was June before O’Grady eventually got his season going at the Dauphin Libr, winning a couple of stages and the points title. Come the Tour, however, they lost team leader David Millar to a doping investigation, and once the racing started O’Grady was one of the few riders who actually went down on the cobbles during stage three, the fall’s impact exacerbated by a subsequent halt at a level crossing that cost him almost four minutes. But, as he did on the road to Pontalier in the 2001 Tour when he ended up in the yellow jersey, O’Grady picked a soaking day after the physical excesses of the team time trial to launch a bid for some personal glory. On this 200.5km stage run for the most part in pouring rain, the attacks started right from the flag, and the Australian had already been in one failed attempt to get clear before joining with four other riders to successfully escape the bunch. There were a good four as well. Paris-Roubaix champion Magnus Backstedt, last year’s Tour stage winner Jakob Piil, French champion Thomas Voeckler and one of France’s big hopes, Sandy Casar. By halfway they were 16 minutes clear, and when the bunch did react and attempt to chase a serious pile-up quickly sapped its momentum. Several riders were injured including US Postal’s Chechu Rubiera and Triki Beltran, and as a number received treatment from Tour doctor Grard Porte, the leaders’ advantage stretched to more than 17 minutes. Unfortunately, the increase in pace in the bunch eventually resulted in the abandon of another Australian, last year’s prologue winner and yellow jersey Brad McGee, who has been struggling with back problems since Lige. Back at the front, the two Frenchmen were having a great day. Casar went through his home town of Mantes la Jolie in the lead group, while Voeckler was, well before the finish, virtually assured of the yellow jersey as the highest placed rider in the break overall. As perhaps the two weakest in a sprint, the two Frenchmen might have been expected to make the first break for the stage win, but it was Backstedt who surprisingly chose to go first, 10km from the finish. The Swede was brought back and a series of attacks followed until O’Grady went clear on his own in the last 5k. Gradually, he was clawed back by Piil and Voeckler, and as the trio slowed the chasing Casar and Backstedt got back up to them with a kilometre to go. The Swede dropped back, apparently tired, but the bluff bought him time to launch a long bid for success. All he did, though, was lead out the sprint for the other four. As Backstedt faded, O’Grady flashed by, with Piil vainly trying to get on terms. After Robbie McEwen’s win on Monday, it was Australia’s second stage win of the race, and appropriately McEwen led in the bunch 12 and a half minutes later to increase his lead in the points standings, giving a better balance to the day for the green and gold after McGee’s premature departure. As he suggested, Lance Armstrong was not bothered about defending the yellow jersey, and the question that will be answered now is just how good a rider French champion Voeckler is. His advantage on the American is not far off 10 minutes, enough perhaps for him to carry the yellow jersey into the Pyrenees, and maybe even some way beyond.